Chapter 1: Revival
I must have woken up. I must have snuck past my roommate, sleeping like an angel of normalcy in a wife-beater. In the trance of ingrained routine, I must have grabbed towel, robe, flip-flops, soap, shampoo, searching blindly in the unsympathetic night for these tokens of everyday existence. The signs that there is nothing to be afraid of, merely another morning. I must have made my way down the empty hallway flanked with doors, like a hall of mirrors reflecting the impassive faces of strangers that are supposed to be me. The moment the shower spray struck my face, I must have awoken screaming like a baptized infant, as my wristwatch glowed preternaturally in the cavernous shower room. It was striking midnight. Disorientated, I returned to my dorm room and drenched my pillow with my sodden hair, weeping nerve endings.
At least, that's what I must have done. I don't remember exactly. I only know that's where I found myself when my alarm woke me with its smug baying hours later. I must have been sleepwalking, I thought drowsily, moving through my tangled comforter as if through water. I'm shocked I didn't wake Sarah. She's sleeping enviably soundly, her fan and the sun shooting ripples across her long blond hair. Normally, at the slightest sign of consciousness, she'd be digging her dog-eared library of Vogue magazines from beneath her army of stuffed animals and threatening to paint my toenails. Maybe she knows that you should never wake a sleepwalker. The shock of surfacing from a dreamer's trance is enough to kill you. Or maybe it's just the unwillingness of the remnants of sleep to fade, clinging to the sleepwalker like broken spider webs, like whispers. Wake up, Ellie, awake! The world is on fire. Awake. You've got to get out of here. Awake! Drown yourself in 6 a.m. lukewarm apathy, the only thing that will spare you now. The world is on fire, you are on fire. Save yourself.
There are pieces of me in boxes and bags everywhere. I wake up in the morning, every morning, disorientated by the foreign ceiling, re-move into the dorm room, re-meet the roommate, and attempt to put myself back together again. I hit the square button to hush the square alarm clock. I walk across the cubical room, down the rectangular hallway and into the shower stall. I open the lid of the room, then the cardboard-colored closet. There's a poster with a collage of sharp-edged pictures of my high school friends inside. I thought I would hang it on my wall, but I never did. I move it aside and dig clothes out of the drawers. I lay my toiletry bag on the floor. I get dressed, following the new trend among artistic students of looking simultaneously well-dressed and disheveled. It's always good to dress the part. I grab my purse off the desk, find my script on the floor and slide them into my rehearsal bag, which goes into my laptop bag, which I sling over my shoulder. It's compartmentalizing at its finest. I don't own anything but what I can carry things in and what I can carry. And sometimes, I don't even know if I want that, or if I do, if it's really mine to keep.
It's only six-thirty. I can't sleep here; it's too claustrophobic. The quiet is stifling: so many bodies, so little life. I feel like the sole survivor of Armageddon. Sarah breathes contentedly, and I feel so alone and so out-of-place, I briefly consider making enough noise to wake her. Come to think of it, that would require nothing short of bribing a 100-piece orchestra, but still, it would be someone else in this strange, lifeless universe. But I don't. If I did, I think, what would I do then? I unzip my laptop bag, remove my purse from the top, extract my rehearsal bag, and dig through the rubble for my script, the little rectangular book. We're supposed to be memorized today. I want to cling to it, a drowning theatre major grasping at the jagged rocks that prelude the falls. But I don't. It could slip, it could come unhinged, it could actually just be another drifter that thought I was the rock. I could tumble down the waterfall anyway, except backwards. And what would I do then? I don't want to be surprised.
The name at the top of my script is Ella Byers. I didn't write it; my director did. It's in all-caps, thick black sharpie. It's permanent. I needed a new identity for college, something to go with the new haircut and the new glasses and the new life. The glasses are cat-eyed, purple, and coy; the hair is short, with pieces obscuring the frames. It looks tougher than I am. I just couldn't go on being Ellie. Ellie is the girl I drove seven hours and 45,000 dollars to get away from. Ella is as glossy, theatrical, and incongruous as my asymmetrical haircut; I could hide beneath a name like that. It fits on marques, it slides off the tongue. It could be a fairy tale heroine, a gorgeous chain-smoking starlet, a consumptive ingénue, an old lady with cats. It's always good to have options. I look in the mirror this morning and tell myself, "You are a new person." I look like I'm running lines; I have that starry, actress glaze to my eyes. I am oh-so convincing. But my thoughts and my dreams haven't been left the return address. Nightmares and mental to-do lists scream it like an overturned alias. And when I talk to myself, I say "Ellie."
"Ellie, Ellie, Ellie."
"Ella! Oh my god, run your lines with me. I'm freaking out! I don't remember any of my blocking." Sarah makes her entrance. She has the magical gift of waking up, getting dressed, curling her hair, applying makeup, and freaking out, all in under fifteen minutes flat.
"Oh, I'm sure you're fine," I reassure mechanically. "At least you don't have about fifty monologues to keep straight." Complaint-topping usually makes Sarah feel better.
"Oh my god, I don't know what I'd do if I had all those lines to memorize. I'm so stressed! But don't worry, honey, you'll be spectacular." She is forever pronouncing things "spectacular:" the spectacular breakfast, the spectacular view, the spectacular ass, the spectacular parking meter, the spectacular performance. The entire drama department calls her Sarah Sunshine, originally behind her back. However, since she beams whenever she happens to overhear, murmuring something that sounds like, "Oh spectacular, spectacular," there's really no point in secrecy anymore.
"Thanks," I tell her awkwardly. She's the most sincere walking caricature I know, and it makes me wish I was better at giving compliments back. "We can start with your big scene in the last act, if you'd like."
"Oh, that'd be spectacular!"
We get through the scene, me reading and Sarah moving through her blocking like an interpretive dancer. She's a good actress, probably better than me, but she can never take anything seriously. That's why she has a silent part in this drama. She laughs at all the sad parts; she squirms and giggles when she's supposed to be dead. At the end of our impromptu rehearsal, she stands, stretching like sitting still for five minutes has really taken its toll on her.
"Gosh," she pronounces solemnly, "I can't wait 'till we do comedy."
I can. I am always tragically unfunny reading other people's jokes. I guess I'm too used to keeping a straight face and staying still. But Sarah's little pout makes me laugh.
"Yeah," I agree, "I'm tired of tragedies… and tragicomedies."
I walk to class with borrowed sunshine beside me.
"'There, you see? She is willing to act her part.'"
"There, you see? She is willing to act her part," I echo inanely. The mechanical tone is contagious.
The part is The Stepdaughter; the play is Luigi Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author. It is about six lost characters who implore a company of actors to help them perform their unfinished play. They act out their lives like a pantomime, showing the actors how. It feels like deja-vu. It's slipping through my fingers.
"No! No! If I can't go away, then I'll stop here; but I repeat: I act nothing!" cries The Son. I remember reading this script. It was fascinating to me the first time, when I didn't have any lines. Stage direction: suddenly.
"Nobody can force me."
"I can," insists The Father. I believe him.
"First of all," I say, The Stepdaughter says, Ella says, "the baby has to go the fountain." I guide Sarah, who is playing the Child, to the red tape down left. She lays on the stage, but I see her floating in the water made of cool, blue lights. She looks like a sleeping doll with the drafty stage and the spotlight shooting ripples across her face.
"First of all, the baby has to go to the fountain," says The Stepdaughter. It's my cue. It's my first part, the silent role. I'm a freshman in high school. I'm eager to impress.
"Hold," calls Ms. Wyatt from the house. "Ellie, we need to block how you get to the fountain." She climbs onstage and sits beside me on the edge of the set piece. It's not been painted yet; you can see the scarred wood and the bent nails that hold it together. It looks delicate enough that I immediately worry I'll break it. I can't make a mistake, not now.
"I want you positioned like this after you drown," Ms. Wyatt tells me.
She leans back into the imaginary water with a motion like a cat stretching. She rests her head against the hard, dusty pillow of the further wall, eyes closed, arms outspread wildly, limbs floating, like a child making snow angels caught in slow motion, silenced and frozen. It is quiet, reverent, almost. In pretend vulnerability, Ms. Wyatt commands respect with her eyes shut.
She sits up suddenly, the water splashes, I imagine.
"Now you try."
I imitate her; I drown. She stands over me, adjusting my arms, the fetal curve of my body, the angle of my head, the direction in which the closed eyes stare, preparing the funeral of a submerged girl with locked, blue lips, parted only in death. The ghosts of words that never lived. I could still think of acting in such pretentious terms then. We were noble, we were artists, we were revolutionary, and I was one small, quiet part of "we."
So, I tried to feel the water lapping hungrily at my jeans, tried to feel the sensation of breathlessness, listened to the lines as they floated past me, thick and distant. I didn't need to listen too hard. I knew every word.
The Stepdaughter is standing in front of the fountain now, sobbing. Any minute now, the Little Boy will shoot himself.
"Ms. Wyatt, the starter pistol's jammed again," the Silent Boy calls, his normal voice breaking the moment so abruptly it's as if the gun went off after all. I feel but do not see her run past me in a whoosh of turpentine-heavy air.
"Got it," she says suddenly. The shot that fills the auditorium scares me more because I know it's coming. Strange, how that works. "Just make sure you hold it like this, Mark. Then it'll shoot." The stage weapon clangs musically as it is passed from hand to hand. changes hands
"Okay, let's go back to John's line right before Mark exits."
He begins. "…the boy there standing stock still, with eyes like a madman's, watching his drowned sister, in the fountain! Then…" Silence.
I can't help it; I open my eyes. The Little Boy, Mark, I mean, stands with the revolver held just away from his face, uneasy. It looks unsettlingly real. I can't blame him. Ms. Wyatt has her hands over his around the trigger. She presses the barrel to his temple, and holds his hands holding the gun there. He flinches involuntarily at the touch of the cold metal. His body doesn't know the difference between a real and fake death. He laughs sheepishly as she lets go, and he presses the gun deeper.
"Like that," she says.
Ms. Wyatt stands at the edge of the stage, biting her lip slightly and examining her handiwork. A silent, dead child suspended in liquid like a secret. A boy, gun stuck in his mind, laughing embarrassedly on the threshold of disaster. Two weeping women and two trembling men, who are truly just children playing dress-up. The characters grapple with reality as a jagged semicircle of actors watches in horror.
"No, no, it's only make believe, it's only pretense!" they insist to themselves.
The Father steps forward. Stage direction is "with a terrible cry." All the boys in the cast yell like banshees at this point. The stage manager even shouts, "Terrible cry!" at the top of his lungs then dissolves into laughter. They think the direction is funny, melodramatic, excessive. I laughed too then, I remember. Mark, the dead child, cries along with them from backstage, grinning. The sound is too pure for the stubble on his chin, too serious for his joking, a small boy wailing. Hungry, empty. In retrospect, I think, That's what it must have sounded like. That's what it must have sounded like when he found out.
"Stop," Ms. Wyatt reprimands sharply. "That was immature and insincere. Again."
The Father weeps in earnest. It's a terrible sound. Then his line delivers him.
"Pretense? Reality, sir, reality!"
"Ella? Ella? Are you all right?"
I surface from drowning, dazed and confused, and I find I'm crying silently over my tiny, childlike roommate, asleep in the water while the world around her smolders with flames. She's in my place. Only there's nothing there but an empty stage. Where is the fountain? Only my eyes are wet. This surprises me.
Embarrassed, I realize I'm in the middle of a different rendition of the play I've been rehearsing for in my memory. Professor Kerper is calling me back. I am supposed to be sobbing here, at least. The script says so: "(The Stepdaughter bends over the fountain to hide the Child. She sobs.)" It must have been too much though, too genuine, to have caught Professor Kerper's attention.He must think I'm crazy. Hell, I think I'm crazy. I don't know what to do now, other than stand, exposed and vulnerable under the surgical lights on the wide, proscenium stage, unable to stop shaking. I remember a quote I heard once. Acting is standing up naked and turning around very, very slowly.
"Would you like a moment to go collect yourself, Ella?"
I nod weakly and hurry to the door like stage fright personified, a new breed of nerves. As I'm leaving, I hear the professor addressing the class.
"Sometimes, your emotional connection to the character becomes so intense it's uncontrollable. The emotion becomes part of you, wants to be released. This is exactly what we're trying to accomplish here as actors. Let that happen, let it happen."
He doesn't know. I think I want to hit him.
Lift your downstage hand and draw it upstage across his face, says Ms. Wyatt. The Father and the Son are fighting. "Make the knap with your upstage hand. If you angle away from the audience, it'll look real." A clean, sharp slap.
"Now you try."
This is the point where my roommate asks me to start from the beginning. She comes back from rehearsal late, sees my telltale, reminder red eyes, and launches herself upon me in an unaffected hug.
"You okay?" she asks, a question I hate. It's a yes or no answer, which is normally obvious and explains nothing anyway. People normally don't wait for a response; they just want to know that since they said it, they have done all they can.
Sarah moves on to "What's wrong, El?" Stiflingly specific to violently vague. Oh, a lot of things are wrong, Sarah, starting with the limits of the sky and moving down through the ground…
"It's… complicated," I select euphemistically.
So what can I say to that? The simplest, most inane question unravels everything. So this is the point where I start to try to start from the beginning.
But what people don't understand is that beginnings don't actually exist. We see them like we see God, and time, and justice, and theatre— because we want to, because we must. All the stories we tell must be contained in two acts, an intermission, and an end, or else… or else what? The world will no longer go 'round, there will be mass panic, massacre by truth, something. Our audience simply does not have that much patience. Screw them, screw them all. I could live any moment of my life right now, past, present, future, whether I want to or not. This is how time really goes: it begins, it ends, it begins, it never ends
I do not own Six Characters In Search of An Author; Luigi Pirandello does. I am envious. The quote about acting is from Rosalind Russell.